IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa shocked the college football world on Sept. 12, 1981.
That was the day Coach Hayden Fry’s team saw red and upset No. 7 Nebraska, 10-7. It was one of those rare football games where fans from both teams left Kinnick Stadium scratching their collective heads and thinking out loud, “What just happened?”
The powerful Cornhuskers had won in Lincoln the season before 57-0, and entered the 1981 game as a 16-point favorite.
“This is one of the hardest losses I’ve had at Nebraska,” Coach Tom Osborne admitted afterwards.
A front-page photo in the sports section of the Des Moines Register the next day showed Fry celebrating with assistant coaches Barry Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz.
Here we are, 39 years later. And Ferentz, whose office overlooks the stadium where that upset took place, enjoyed another victory over Nebraska this week.
It came on Wednesday, when the Hawkeyes got a commitment from a Nebraska legacy recruit.
His name, as you know by now, is Keagan Johnson, a wide receiver at West High School in Bellevue, Neb. His dad, Clester, was a wingback for the Cornhuskers and played on two national championship teams under Osborne.
Keagan told HawkeyeNation.com’s Rob Howe that he followed his heart. His dad, he said, put no pressure on him. And as a result, he decided it was time to start his own legacy.
Props to Clester Johnson for taking that clear-minded approach and not putting additional pressure on his son’s shoulders. It is a refreshing change of pace.
Keagan’s decision says a lot about Iowa. And Nebraska. And it proves once again that winning is a vital recruiting tool.
Winning was a habit at Nebraska when Clester Johnson wore the uniform. Great team after great team walked the turf of Memorial Stadium.
Now, things aren’t the same. And in the world of recruiting, perception is often as important as reality,
Losing Johnson to Iowa doesn’t mean that Coach Scott Frost is doomed to fail. But it proves that a legacy coach has to do more than talk about the good old days to get things turned around.
Because things are different than when Frost played for Osborne. For one, Nebraska is in the Big Ten. And two, schools like Iowa have caught up while Nebraska has taken a step back.
The Cornhuskers once had the market cornered on two things – strength and conditioning under Boyd Epley and a heralded walk-on program. These days, Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle takes a back seat to no one. And walk-ons have filled vital roles on Ferentz’s 21 Iowa teams.
That 1981 upset of Nebraska was Ferent’z first game as Iowa’s offensive line coach. His starting left tackle that day was Bruce Kittle, now better known as George’s father.
The Cornhuskers pretty much owned recruiting in Nebraska and Iowa back then. The feature back of Osborne’s 1981 team was Roger Craig of Davenport Central. Craig’s brother, Curtis, played at Nebraska in a career that ended in 1977. Another Central alum, Jamie Williams, was the starting tight end in 1981. Henry Waechter of Epworth started at defensive tackle and Steve McWhirter of Fairfield started at linebacker. Scott Raridon of Mason City was a backup offensive tackle.
Iowa had tried to recruit Roger Craig, who would go on to play for three Super Bowl championship teams with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I considered Iowa,” he told the Quad-City Times in February of 1979, “and I guess they’re still after me. They haven’t let me alone, and I guess they’re going to stay on me until I sign the national letter with Nebraska. Iowa treated me well. I had no complaints about Iowa. But it was nothing like Nebraska.”
The Nebraska upset spurred Iowa to its first winning season since 1961 and the third Rose Bowl appearance in school history.
As Fry joined Forest Evashevski as an Iowa football coaching icon, he won a few recruiting battles of his own. Getting linebacker Larry Station from Omaha, a future all-American, away from the Cornhuskers, was big news. But it didn’t signal the end of Nebraska football. Osborne’s teams won national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
Osborne retired after that 1997 season, and Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, Mike Riley and now Frost have wrestled to keep the program’s elite status afloat. Nebraska has had three straight losing seasons and four of the last five.
Back in 1981, the thought of Iowa beating Nebraska five straight times would have been considered Mission Impossible.
Nebraska’s only victory over Iowa the last seven seasons was a 37-34 overtime triumph in Kinnick Stadium in 2014, a loss that still sticks in Ferentz’s craw. I’m sure Nebraska fans feel the same way about watching Iowa win four straight times at Memorial Stadium.
The Hawkeyes have won three straight bowl games and 19 times overall the past two seasons.
Iowa has had some key Nebraskans on the roster in recent seasons. The list includes tight end Noah Fant from Omaha, who picked the Hawkeyes over Nebraska and left as a first-round NFL draft pick in 2018.
There was defensive end Drew Ott, who played eight-man football at Giltner, Neb., and wanted dearly to play at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers didn’t offer, but Iowa did.
“I would never go back and do it over again,” Ott said in 2015. “Iowa’s been a perfect fit for me.”
Nathan Bazata from Howells, Neb., was a three-year letterman as a defensive lineman (2015-2017), and was also ignored by Nebraska. Then there was linebacker Cole Fisher, whose father, Todd, and brother, Sean, played for the Cornhuskers. He took an offer from Iowa and started as a fifth-year senior in 2015. That team celebrated a 12-0 regular season with a 28-20 victory… at Nebraska.
Nebraska has won a few recruiting battles with Iowa for players. Current players Blaise Gunnerson, a linebacker from Carroll Kuemper, and Mosai Newsom, a defensive lineman from Waverly-Shell Rock, had Iowa offers. Tate Wildeman, a defensive lineman whose father, Parker, was a second-team all-Big Ten selection at Iowa in 1994, is another.
There’s also Will Farniok, an offensive lineman, and linebackers Nick Henrich and Will Honas who also had Iowa offers.
Recruiting is on an uptick at Iowa, with Johnson’s commitment the most recent success story. Eight of the state of Iowa’s Top 10 prospects have also committed. The two execptions are Thomas Fidone from Lewis Central of Council Bluffs, who has narrowed an impressive list of offers down to Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, LSU, Penn State and Notre Dame, and T.J. Bollers from Clear Creek Amana, who has the Cornhuskers among his final six. Iowa is not a finalist.
So Bollers will join Johnson as a legacy recruit going elsewhere. His father, Trevor, was a four-year letterman for the Hawkeyes (1994, 1996-1998).
Johnson was considered one of the top three prospects in Nebraska in the current class. Another, defensive back Avante Dickerson from Omaha Westside, has committed to Minnesota.
Nebraska’s Big Ten rivals poaching the best in-state talent is an alarming trend in Huskerland. And it will continue until the Cornhuskers become the Cornhuskers of old.
Because it’s not 1981 anymore.